All workers at health care facilities and congregational settings are required by Sept. 7 to get the COVID-19 vaccine or submit to routine testing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Aug. 2.
The order does not extend to state employees, but Murphy stressed that the option was still on the table, with talks ongoing with public sector unions that have argued such requirements should be negotiated into existing public worker contracts.
Just over 5.1 million people who live, work or study in New Jersey have been fully vaccinated, according to state health data–not enough to build herd immunity against the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
Widespread hesitancy and skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine has brought vaccination rates to a halt, with Democrats broadly saying they’re already vaccinated and Republicans still broadly hesitant to get the shot.
All three shots – Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna – are awaiting full federal approval, which Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the state’s medical director, said could trigger a surge in vaccinations.
Cases and total hospitalizations have risen to their highest levels in months – spreading almost exclusively among those who have not gotten the shot – in what Murphy and many public health experts and officials have frequently called a “pandemic among the unvaccinated.”
Under the new requirements, health care workers who do not get vaccinated will need to be tested for COVID-19 “at minimum one to two times per week,” the governor’s office said.
“This standard is the absolute floor,” Murphy, who is running for reelection this November, said during a regular COVID-19 press briefing on Aug. 2.
“If we do not see significant increases in vaccination rates among the employees in these settings, we are ready and willing to require all staff to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment,” he added.
Despite his reelection efforts, the governor denied that “politics” played any role in his decision to hold off on enacting any new COVID-19 restrictions. A masking “recommendation” rather than a stringent requirement is in place for indoor settings where there’s a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission–basically any place in public.
“There’s a lot of noise out there, you can’t pay attention to a lot of stuff that has no basis,” the governor said. “These are not popular steps, trust me.”
Under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, masks should be worn in high-risk counties by people indoors regardless of vaccine status, a metric that now applies to 20 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
Monday’s requirements extend to all county jails and correctional facilities, veterans homes, psychiatric centers, acute-care hospitals, specialty hospitals, developmental centers, long-term care and assisted-living facilities, short-term and post-acute in-patient rehabs, home health agencies, University Hospital, and all behavioral health care facilities.
Health care systems like Trinitas, RWJBarnabas and Hackensack Meridian Health are requiring staff to get vaccinated. Hoboken last week became the first municipality in the state to require the vaccine among its workers. Rutgers and Kean universities said they would block students from taking classes this fall if they do not show that they’ve gotten the vaccine.
Meanwhile, the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs Newark Liberty International Airport, the seaports in Union and Essex counties, and the Hudson River crossings, is requiring a shot or a frequent negative COVID-19 test of it’s New York employees.
There are no announced plans for mandating vaccines among New Jersey Transit workers and Garden State PANYNJ workers, but Murphy said it was being considered.
He also said he’s urging private sector employers to step up and extend similar requirements to their own workers.
He had no hard estimates on how many workers would be affected by this order, since many of them are in the private sector, but said it would be in the “many thousands.”
“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something that we can look at casually,” Murphy added. “Almost every day we are receiving some new research note that shows this variant to be even more contagious and more deadly than previously thought. We also know that the surest way to end this pandemic is through vaccination.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:36 p.m. EST on Aug. 2, 2021, to include additional remarks from Gov. Phil Murphy and Dr. Ed Lifshitz and information pertaining to discussions with pubic worker unions, current masking recommendations in the state and from the CDC, vaccine requirements for Rutgers and Kean universities and NJ Transit PANYNJ workers, and to state that Murphy is running for reelection in November.